Tuesday 31 July, 2012
Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki, Finland
The museum was already filling up when Keigo made his way in a little after noon. He would have preferred emptier rooms, so that he could have viewed the paintings in peace without being jostled by other people. However, the exhibition was too popular for that.
The exhibition was extensive: there were over three hundred works on display. It was simply too much to take in at one sitting, so Keigo merely wandered from room to room, letting his eyes take in the general shape of the exhibition. He'd come back some other day for his favourites.
If people thought about what kind of art Keigo liked, they'd probably guess that his tastes would go in the direction of the great European masters of the Renaissance and Baroque. And it was true that he loved those periods. However, there was something special about Helene Schjerfbeck. Her paintings had gripped Keigo's interest from the moment he had first seen pictures of them.
Keigo was in the room that was dedicated solely to Schjerfbeck's self-portraits. The early works were realistic, with simple joy and hope about them. They were proficient and pleasing to look at, but it was the later works that caught the viewer's attention. The more Schjerfbeck had aged, the more stark and abstract her use of line and colour had become. In those paintings, everything was deliberate, and there was nothing inessential. They exuded defiance.
Keigo stopped to study one painting in more detail. Self-Portrait, 'An old painter,' 1945. Painted a year before Schjerfbeck died. It was from a private collection, which explained why Keigo had never seen a decent picture of it before. The only picture he had seen of it didn’t do justice to it. Dark colours dominated the portrait. Schjerfbeck had painted her face in a kind of sickly, dark green. The painting was cadaveric, and looking at it, Keigo almost shivered.
“She looks like she's half-dead already,” a voice spoke to his ear.
Keigo whipped around, fast as a lightning, and collided with the person who had spoken to him.
“Well, that teaches me not to try to take you by surprise.”
Keigo blinked. “Yukimura Seiichi.”
“The very one,” Yukimura confirmed.
Keigo blinked again, which made Yukimura raise his eyebrow. “Cat got your tongue, Atobe?”
That surprised a laugh out of Keigo. “I am surprised, I admit. I wasn't expecting to run into you in Helsinki, of all places.”
“I hope it doesn't mean that the meeting is an unwelcome one,” Yukimura murmured. “I would hate to discomfit you in any way.”
Keigo quirked his mouth. “Such admirable concern for other people's comfort.”
“It is my particular weakness, I admit,” Yukimura said. There was gentle amusement in his eyes. That made Keigo realise that, in fact, he didn’t mind Yukimura’s company at all.
Keigo laughed. “Indeed.”
Someone cleared their throat behind Keigo, and Keigo stepped aside, giving the throat-clearer an apologetic smile. “Perhaps we should move away from this painting and let other people have a look at it, too,” he said to Yukimura when the throat-clearer had passed them. “I would like to catch up with you.”
“By all means,” Yukimura said. “Did you have some place in mind?”
“Well, there is this exhibition of Helene Schjerfbeck's works to commemorate the 150th anniversary of her birth. Perhaps you have heard of it?” Keigo inquired solicitously. “I thought we might see it together.”
“Indeed I have,” Yukimura said, laughing again. “Well, lead the way.”
They spent an hour looking at the rest of the exhibition as well as the permanent collections at Ateneum. Keigo learned that Yukimura had been in Finland for over a week already, taking part in the Tampere Open tennis tournament.
“It’s part of the ATP Challenger Tour,” Yukimura said. “And you? What brings you here in Helsinki?”
“I’m on holiday,” Keigo said. “I actually chose Helsinki because I wanted to see this exhibition.”
Café Engel, Senate Square
“I don’t think I could look at another painting even if I was paid to do it,” Keigo said when they were finally outside on the front steps of the museum.
“That was a little overwhelming,” Yukimura agreed. “How about a coffee somewhere?”
Keigo agreed. They headed towards Café Engel on Senate Square, an eatery highly recommended by Yukimura’s guide book.
Seated by the windows, they looked out at Senate Square and its main attraction, the Helsinki Cathedral.
“Pompous, but beautiful,” was Keigo’s considered opinion of the Cathedral.
“Just like you,” Yukimura murmured. There was a wicked glint in his eyes.
“Oh, shut up, you,” Keigo retorted and rolled his eyes.
The square was teeming with tourists. Most of them seemed European, but there was a whole busload of Japanese people taking pictures of the Cathedral and of each other.
“Are you travelling alone?” Yukimura asked.
Keigo nodded. “My parents are in Italy, and then they are going to go to Greece. They go there every summer. I like those countries, but going there every year starts to get a little old.”
Yukimura smiled. “It’s good to finally be eighteen, isn’t it?”
“Ah, yes, you went pro at the age of sixteen,” Keigo said. “I presume you've lived on your own since then?”
Yukimura nodded. “And believe me, getting parental permission for just about everything was a pain in the arse.”
They lapsed into silence. Yukimura used his paper napkin to make an origami flower. It was a bit lopsided, the napkin not being the ideal material to use for origami, but it was still recognisably a flower. Keigo drew his finger across the petals, and the flower disintegrated a little more.
The flower looked fragile, just like Yukimura did. But unlike the flower, Yukimura’s fragility was an illusion. Anyone who had played at Nationals mere four weeks after a surgery was not fragile. That kind of steely determination -- well, it was both admirable and foolhardy.
Keigo wondered where he himself had lost that kind of determination. He had had it. When the other children had made fun of his playing, he had vowed to be the best one day. He had achieved it too. He had struggled and practised, and by the time his family had moved to Japan, he had been the best in his age group. That hadn’t been enough for him, though. He had wanted to be a professional, but somewhere along the way, when the realities of life had made their impression on him, he had lost that dream.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Yukimura said in a low voice, startling Keigo out of his reverie.
Keigo smiled briefly. “Just thinking of might-have-beens.”
Yukimura cocked his head. He stared at Keigo with an inscrutable gaze, and then he asked, “Atobe, would you play a game with me tomorrow morning?”
Wednesday 1 August, 2012
Meilahti Sports Centre
Keigo tested the bounce of the tennis balls and concentrated on the feel of the racket. He had no illusions about how this match would end. He certainly wouldn’t be a match for Yukimura, who lived and breathed tennis. Although Keigo still played sometimes, his studies took an ever-increasing slice of his time. Moreover, during the past few months, after he had begun his university studies, he had started to find excuses not to play. The thoughts of what could have been that assaulted him after every game were painful. He was not one to cling to futile dreams, so for his own peace of mind, it was better to let go completely.
Therefore, when Yukimura had asked for a game, Keigo had felt torn. He knew he should have said no. However, the fierce yearning to feel Yukimura’s presence on the other side of the net and to stretch himself to his limits in answer to Yukimura’s tennis had been so strong that he could not have answered with anything other than a yes.
Keigo looked at Yukimura. A shiver travelled up his spine at the pressure of Yukimura’s gaze. Keigo stilled himself and let his awareness encompass the whole court. He threw the ball up into the air and sent it over the net. Yukimura’s return was deadly. Love-15. Keigo breathed deeply before serving for the second time. Love-30. The third serve. Love-40. The fourth serve. Game, Yukimura. Keigo had lost his service game.
Calm, stay calm, Keigo said to himself. Let yourself be aware of the opponent. And above all, keep your eyes on the ball. He let himself sink into the game, and when Yukimura’s serve came over the net, he was there to return it. Deeper and deeper he went, and little by little, he started picking up points.
They played in silence, the only sounds being the smacks of the ball and Keigo’s harsh and Yukimura’s gentler breathing. Despite the fact that he managed to score points, Keigo knew that he was losing, and badly. Somehow, it didn’t seem to register with him, though. He was aware of only the ball and Yukimura. Nothing else mattered, not even himself.
When Yukimura called the score as two sets to love, Keigo sank to his knees. He’d lost, yes, but that was only a very distant thought. He felt like he was underwater and was just slowly surfacing. He forced himself to get up to shake Yukimura's hand.
“What,” he said in a raspy voice. Then he swallowed and continued, “what was that?”
“That was Muga no Kyouchi,” Yukimura said dispassionately. “Congratulations. Now, if only you had some use for it.”
“You’re giving up tennis, are you not? What use is achieving muga for you, when the highest level you’ll ever play in the future is some slow recreational playing with your business associates?” There was scorn in Yukimura’s voice when he said the words 'business associates'. “Or perhaps you’ll take up golf to better fit in in the business world.”
“What right do you have to criticise my choices?” Keigo growled.
“Shut up and listen,” Yukimura said. “You are an extraordinary player. Moreover, you love tennis. I can see it in your play. Yet you’re going to waste your life doing something you can’t stand. And why? To fulfil some stupid standards your family and the society has set you.“ Yukimura’s voice had grown cold. “You are a fool, Atobe Keigo. A fool and a coward.”
Then he turned and walked away.
Keigo stood on the court for a long time. When he eventually made his way to the changing rooms, Yukimura was gone.
Keigo returned to his hotel room at one o’clock in the afternoon and spent the whole day curled up in his bed. He let time pass in a haze. He didn’t want to think, but Yukimura’s words kept going around in his head like a broken record. You are a fool, Atobe Keigo. A fool and a coward. Words of utter contempt. Yukimura could not have made it clearer what he thought of Keigo.
The worst of it was that Keigo couldn’t dispute it. He was a coward. His family hadn’t even had to pressure him into dropping tennis. He had done it all by himself because he knew that that was what he was supposed to be doing. He had gone to university like a dutiful little son because he was too afraid to pursue his dreams.
He hated his studies. They were dull and uninspiring. The thought that he’d have to spend the rest of his life dealing with people like his father and his classmates made him feel dead inside. Yet he hadn’t allowed himself to think about quitting and pursuing a career in professional tennis.
Yukimura was right. He was a coward.
Thursday 2 August, 2012
Ateneum Art Museum
Keigo wandered around the second floor rooms where the majority of Helene Schjerfbeck’s works were displayed. He stopped here and there to look at a painting more carefully, but he was feeling restless and very few of the paintings could hold his attention for more than a few seconds. Eventually, he gave up on seeing the second floor paintings and headed up to the third floor to the portrait room. After all, the portrait room, and one particular portrait, were what he had come here to see.
He stopped in front of the portrait called ‘An old painter.’ This was were he had been standing when Yukimura had interrupted him. Now he was back here, and he found that he viewed the portrait in a new light. The portrait was still disturbing with its skull-like shape. The eyes, nose and mouth were just dark blobs, and the shirt Schjerfbeck was wearing was of a cadaveric beige colour. Just like Yukimura had said, it looked like she was half-dead already.
Whereas before Keigo had been fascinated by the portrait because it was so disturbing, now he felt an affinity to it. This was what he felt like inside when he contemplated his future. A future in the business world, with the goal of making money. Then, later, a marriage and 1.2 children. It was all about what was expected of him. What about happiness? What about his own dreams and passions?
“I don’t want to feel dead inside,” he whispered.
Keigo stared at the portrait, and the portrait seemed to stare back. Suddenly, he turned on his heels and strode out of the building. When outside, he fished out his mobile phone. They had exchanged phone numbers on Tuesday, Yukimura and he, and he now took advantage of that.
“Hello,” Yukimura answered the phone.
“You’re a bastard, you know that?” Keigo said conversationally.
Yukimura chuckled. “People have sometimes said that, yes.”
“Where are you?”
“At home in London.”
Well, that complicated things a little bit. Not too much, though. “Can I come over tonight?” Keigo asked.
Yukimura burst out laughing. “Only you would consider flying from Helsinki to London as ‘coming over’.”
Yukimura sobered. “By all means. Text me the arrival time of your flight and the name of the airport, and I’ll come to fetch you. Would you like to stay in my flat? It’s not very big, I warn you, but there’s room for an extra futon.”
“Thank you, I’d like that, at least for the first night,” Keigo said.
“Then, welcome. I’ll see you this evening.”
Yukimura Seiichi’s flat, London, the United Kingdom
Yukimura had indeed come to the airport to fetch Keigo. The journey back to the flat had been made in silence. Keigo hadn’t particularly wanted to talk nonsense at that moment. He had still been too angry at Yukimura and at himself to engage in chit-chat. Yukimura, for his part, had seemed to take his cue from Keigo and had remained silent.
Now, Keigo stood looking out of the window in Yukimura’s flat while Yukimura prepared tea. When Yukimura came over to him and handed him a cup of tea, he spoke, “Why?”
Yukimura didn’t even pretend not to understand what Keigo meant. “Because you were one of my best opponents. Because of the brilliance that lights your whole being when you play.” He paused. “And because for some reason I care about it when I see you hurting.”
Keigo turned around. “So you thought you’d cure my pain by heaping scorn on me?”
“What can I say? I am a bastard. You said so yourself.”
Keigo lowered his eyes. “I didn’t really mean it. I was just so angry at you for shattering my peace of mind. And angry at myself for letting go of my dreams.”
“I can’t be angry at you. Myself, yes, but not you.”
Yukimura took Keigo’s cup away from him and set both cups on the table. Then he came back to Keigo and cupped Keigo’s face in his hands. “Atobe Keigo, you are a brilliant, determined man. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
Keigo stared at Yukimura with wide eyes. Then, he drew Yukimura to himself and kissed him. Yukimura made a noise of surprise before opening his mouth and kissing Keigo back. Keigo tasted salt on Yukimura’s lips, and it took him a few seconds to realise that they were his own tears. He drew back and buried his head in Yukimura’s shoulder. Yukimura merely held him tightly and let him cry.
“Damn you, Yukimura. Damn me. And thrice damn my parents,” Keigo swore into Yukimura’s shirt.
“I know, Atobe. I know.”
Their teas had grown cold. Yukimura made another pot, and they sat around the table. When Keigo yawned the third time, Yukimura laughed. “I guess you’re still in Tokyo time.”
Keigo chuckled. “Yes. I never had time to get used to Finnish time.”
“Let’s make you a bed, then. Unless you’d like to share a bed with me? I do have a double, after all.” Yukimura said and looked slightly self-conscious.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“No, I wouldn’t mind at all,” Yukimura answered. “But there’s one condition.”
Keigo raised his eyebrow. “Really? And what is that?”
Yukimura smiled. “That you call me Seiichi.”
Keigo laughed. “I think I can do that. Seiichi.”
They lay on the bed, facing each other, when Seiichi spoke. “I used to have the world’s biggest crush on you,” he said.
That woke Keigo up very effectively. “You did?”
“Mm-hmm, I did,” Seiichi confirmed. “I seem to be repeating myself tonight, but you are brilliant on a court. You almost literally light the place up.”
“Don’t tell me that no one has ever said that to you before,” Seiichi said.
“I. No. They haven’t,” Keigo answered. “Usually they tell me that I’m arrogant.”
Seiichi drew Keigo to himself. He ran his hands through Keigo’s hair, and Keigo felt like purring. “You’re arrogant, too,” Seiichi said, “but I don’t think that’s your defining quality at all.”
“Hmmm, oh, oh yeah. Right there.” This time there was no mistaking it. If humans could purr, Keigo would have been doing exactly that.
Seiichi chuckled. “If you weren’t so tired, I’d try to seduce you right here and right now.”
“I’m completely seduced already,” Keigo said and stretched like a cat against Seiichi. “Only, can we leave the sex until tomorrow morning? I fear I'd fall asleep in the middle of it.”
Seiichi continued his petting, and Keigo let his eyes fall shut. He was feeling pleasantly boneless, and he could feel sleep claiming him. Just as he was dropping into sleep, an important thought came to him. He felt it absolutely necessary to share it with Seiichi, so he slurred, “I'll need a coach.” Then he fell asleep.
Seiichi spent a long time merely looking at Keigo before his eyes started to grow heavy, too. “You shall have whatever you want,” he whispered and kissed Keigo. Then he settled down to sleep the sleep of the content.